Arsenal have top-class strikers in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette. Can Unai Emery unlock their hidden potential for the club’s success?
It isn’t every day that you get to watch footballers live, let alone from proverbial touching distance. Usually, as a Canadian, I watch football on the television where the players feel distant and almost unknowable.
By a stroke of good fortune, I was in London in July 2018 when Arsenal visited Boreham Wood F.C. for a friendly match.
Borehamwood is a town of approximately 37,000 just outside the Greater London area. Off the train, it’s a straight walk up Shenley Road to Meadow Park, where Boreham Wood, Arsenal Ladies and Arsenal Reserves play their respective home games.
The grounds are small and intimate holding 4,500 people. I stood in the North Stand like in days of English football past and was closer to the action to come than ever before.
Without access to my phone, I caught portions from overheard conversations. Expecting a reserve team to show up, I was pleasantly surprised to catch wind of the lineup.
“Oh, it’s quite a strong team: Cech, Bellerin, Sokratis…” said one son to his father, before his father cut him off.
“Cech? Really. Is Ramsey playing?” the father replied.
“No, he is on the bench.”
The Arsenal players warmed up on the opposite side of the pitch, so I didn’t know the entire starting eleven until the players walked out onto the pitch for the game.
That is when I realised that the likes of Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Reiss Nelson and Konstantinos Mavropanos, but most notably Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette, were starting in a friendly against a team from the fifth-tier of English football in the middle of July.
Under the sweltering heat of the record-breaking high temperatures in England this summer, all the players looked impressive in an 8-0 thrashing, especially against weaker opposition, but Aubameyang and Lacazette were a cut above.
Aubameyang scored three goals, one of which was a strike from outside the box that would have beaten some of the world’s best keepers, but even without the goals, he glided across Meadow Park’s pristine surface.
What impressed me the most though was when, from a long clearance, Aubameyang ran onto the ball on the left-wing with his blistering pace. By subtly changing his rapid steps to an elegant skip, he was able to control the ball and have the Boreham Wood defender at his mercy before assisting Lacazette for Arsenal’s fifth goal of the game.
Lacazette operated with generosity, ever available as an option for his teammates, moving all over the pitch, in tight spaces out wide and in the pockets in front of the opposing back-four.
His skills were best demonstrated when he peeled off to the left, received the ball and used a couple of deceptive touches to put his defender on the ground. In the box, he bided his time and found Aubameyang for a shot that was subsequently saved.
If Arsenal wants to find any success this year and in the years to come, these two will have to combine and play in tandem with the other in mind.
Aubameyang carries himself with a certain ease as if he was born to play football. The evidence is in the way he comports himself on the pitch but also in his comfort under the bright lights of fame and fortune.
Some shy away from the spotlight, Aubameyang, instead, steps into it with his eye-catching haircuts, diamond jeweled boots, flashy cars, and over-the-top goal celebrations. Even in the blinding lights of football celebrity, Aubameyang shines bright with the natural speed and football inherited from his father who came to France from Gabon to play football professionally.
Born in Laval, France, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang started scoring goals at an early age and, even then, celebrated goals with acrobatic, jumping front flips. As an 18 year old, he moved to AC Milan, but would never play a match at the San Siro. It took time and growing pains for Aubameyang to blossom into the player he is today.
He started making a name for himself only at Saint-Etienne as a 22 year old scoring 41 goals over two and a half seasons. His success at Saint-Etienne earned him a move to Borussia Dortmund the season after Dortmund had lost the Champions League final to Bayern Munich. Coincidentally, that summer, Dortmund would also add Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Sokratis Papastathopoulos.
At Dortmund, he flourished into a devastating goalscorer; at first, as a foil to the prolific goalscorer already at Dortmund in Robert Lewandowski. Aubameyang played on the wing, a position he might have to take up at Arsenal this season, and scored 16 goals in all competitions to Lewandowski’s 28. The two played off each other and contributed in the other’s success leading the team to a 2nd place finish in the 2013-14 Bundesliga season.
When Lewandowski moved to Bayern Munich, their relationship remained strong, now as competitors instead of as teammates. Both players hovered around the top of the Bundesliga scoring charts in the following years. Lewandowski won the Torjäerkanone (the cannon-shaped trophy awarded to the Bundesliga’s top scorer for that season) in the 2015-16 season with Aubameyang in second. The following season was even more heated as both got to 30 goals in the Bundesliga, but Aubameyang scored a crucial brace on the final matchday to earn the award.
The rivalry made both players better and when Aubameyang left for Arsenal, Lewandowski even went so far as to say that “Now that [Aubameyang] is gone, maybe a part of [his] motivation that came from [their] duel had has also gone.”
During his final days at BVB, ahead of his move to Arsenal, the relationship he built with the club began to deteriorate along with his reputation across European football. He forced his way out of Dortmund, and with his loud hairstyles and high-priced collection of sports cars, it was easy to portray him as a primadonna – and many media outlets did.
He would quickly disprove those claims with his magnanimous character on the field, during practice with his infectious smile, on the bench dancing with his teammates, and on social media where he would often joke good-naturedly with his teammates past and present.
For all the glitz and glamour that Aubameyang loves, he brings substance, quality and, most importantly, generosity in equal measure.
Arsenal’s previous record-breaking signing before Aubameyang was Lacazette who doesn’t play with quite the same joie de vivre, especially apparent during his difficult first season with the London club.
Despite arriving with a big price tag (£46.5 million), many doubted him. The fact that Lacazette could have been their player the season before, but Arsene Wenger declined the opportunity, only to sign him the following season, raised many eyebrows. And, Wenger’s decision to not start Lacazette in the season’s first big match against top-four rival Liverpool raised even more eyebrows. Wenger’s hard and fast rule to substitute Lacazette in seemingly every match he did start only exacerbated the situation. Did his own manager doubt him as well?
The introduction of Aubameyang the following transfer window did not help. “How will Aubameyang and Lacazette play together?” asked some. “Lacazette is on his way out,” proclaimed others off the back of ten games without a goal from the Frenchman.
Lacazette was a one-club man prior to his move to London and the bright lights of the English Premier League. A loyal servant to his hometown club Olympique Lyonnais where he played seven seasons and always worked in the shadow of more highly touted French attackers like Antoine Griezmann, Anthony Martial and Kingsley Coman. He scored 129 goals in all competitions during his time at Lyon, the third-most goals in Lyon’s history.
With the wealth of talent in French football, especially in attacking areas, Lacazette has remained on the fringes of the national team despite his impressive goal-scoring record. He was named to France’s 2014 World Cup and EURO 2016 reserve squads, and was, for the third time in a row, named to France’s reserve squad for a major tournament (World Cup 2018 which France eventually won). Despite saying all the right things like “Of course, at first I was disappointed not to be in the team but one month later I had forgotten this and I am happy for my friends,” it must have been bittersweet for him to see his French teammates lift the trophy when he believed he should have been in Russia with them.
Overlooked, underestimated and underappreciated, Lacazette cuts a frustrated figure at times, but remains ever determined to prove his critics wrong. The youngest son of four boys in a footballing family, Lacazette is no stranger to working against the odds.
During his struggles in the 2017-18 debut season, his confidence was obviously low. But even with his slumped shoulders and exasperated expression, he remained dogged, continually searching for the next opportunity. This upcoming season is his next opportunity. An opportunity to prove he can cut it in the EPL, to prove that he and Aubameyang (10 goals and 4 assists in only 14 Arsenal appearances) can play together, and to prove to Didier Deschamps that he should have been on that plane to Russia.
It is a rare sight to see teams deploy two out-and-out No. 9s in modern football. Teams that play two strikers do so with an attacking midfielder or winger in disguise, like Wilfred Zaha with Crystal Palace or Gylfi Sigurdsson with Iceland. With Aubameyang and Lacazette, Arsenal have an opportunity to create an alchemy of goalscoring prowess that is uncommon in modern football.
When you see both of them on the pitch, their respective playing styles, on-field demeanors and tactical tendencies are in stark contrast with the other. Aubameyang flutters across the pitch with a natural grace, but jolts into action when the opportunity presents itself. Lacazette is ever industrious and will more often take part in the build-up play contributing with precise footwork, careful touches and astute passes.
Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee is how Muhammed Ali described his boxing style before a heavyweight bout against Sonny Liston in 1964. With it, Ali perfectly encapsulated a unique fighting style that combined grace and precision. Arsenal, in its two top-class strikers, has in its team its own butterfly and bee.
The developing partnership between Aubameyang the butterfly and Lacazette the bee has the potential to pack a punch as devastating as Ali’s in the ring and lead them to success in the upcoming season and beyond. There is a perfect balance between the two players, and if Unai Emery can get the best out of both players simultaneously, Arsenal could have one of the sharpest attacks in the PL this season.
The ball arrives at Aubameyang’s feet in natural, seamless motion putting defenders on the back foot whenever he is near. With Lacazette buzzing in perpetual motion, operating in the half-spaces with his perceptive runs and considered touches, the two can combine to create an ebb and flow with equal poise and precision.
Arsenal FC is in a transition season after the departure of Arsène Wenger and the arrival of Unai Emery. When Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013 after managing Manchester United for 27 years, United struggled to remain at the top and is close to returning to its former place in English football only after going through three different managers in five years.
Arsenal, after 22 years under Wenger, is at risk of falling to a similar fate, but Emery doesn’t follow quite the resounding success like David Moyes did at United and has the opportunity to tap into a potential treasure trove of talent.
It will be his ability to get the best out of the returning Arsenal players; namely, Aubameyang and Lacazette, that will determine his and Arsenal’s success for years to come.
Even with the resounding goal-scoring track record between both players, it will come down to Emery to decide whether he believes he can strike the right balance tactically and fit in other important attacking players like Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey.
The potential is there. The signs are there. It’s up to Emery to make the most out of it. For the butterfly and the bee to come together in perfect harmony, it will take sacrifice and compromise. Their growing relationship off the field shows a determination in both players to make it work, for the benefit of a teammate and friend.